Frederick Wiseman’s magnificent La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet offers a portrait of suppleness and agility—not just that of the dancers’ bodies but also of the august institution of the title. Like all of Wiseman’s documentaries, La Danse forgoes voice-over and identifying intertitles, allowing for spectators’ full immersion into the action within the walls of the Palais Garnier, the 19th-century, neo-Baroque opera house where the company rehearses and performs. The film also demands that we pay closer attention, with none of nonfiction film’s usual cues to guide us. Roughly two-thirds of La Danse is devoted to rehearsal and performance, shot in deeply satisfying long takes of gorgeous young men and women starting, stopping, listening, questioning, repeating, perfecting. The rest is behind the scenes, and as Wiseman shows empty corridors, the cafeteria, sewing rooms, and the nightly clean-up of the 2,200-seat theater, the stealth star of La Danse emerges: Brigitte Lefèvre, the company’s composed, elegant artistic director. Shown in a meeting discussing the finer distinctions between “benefactors” and “big benefactors,” Lefèvre nimbly tackles the potential messiness—but absolute necessity—of crass commerce fueling high art. When not administrating, Lefèvre seems happiest as a maternal martinet, reminding one new student, “To do is the most important.”
“La Danse, however, does more than offer intimate access to great dancers. It showcases performers like Nicolas Le Riche and Agnès Letestu and choreography by Rudolf Nureyev and Pina Bausch, but it also ventures beyond the stage and studios and into sewing rooms, cafeterias and administrative offices. Like most of Mr. Wiseman’s movies it is above all a portrait of an institution.
Dennis Lim, The New York Times.
RUNNING TIME 158’
PRODUCTION France, 2009
RATING Not Rated